Generations collide as Brand meets Paxman

To people of my generation, the absence of outright anger, rage and aggression sometimes makes it seem as if young people don’t care about anything. But anger and rage are behaviourally impossible in our society.

Russell Brand skewered my old mate Jeremy Paxman on 23 October when discussing the subject of “revolution” on BBC2’s Newsnight. Or rather, they skewered each other. It was one of those rare media occasions where each participant achieves what he wants: Russell to inspire a generation, Jeremy to get a feisty interview with one of the key voices of his age.

Russell’s normal shtick is benign mayhem: to be the Jungian trickster. Jeremy’s shtick is to conduct every interview from the point of view of an 18th-century country vicar, who if the times were not so chaotic might – as in Orwell’s poem – “preach upon eternal gloom/And watch my walnuts grow”.

In Jeremy’s world, all legitimacy comes from the parliamentary process and the monarchy. In Russell’s, things are different. In Russell’s world, people are so fed up with capitalism that there is a high likelihood of revolution. When he made this point, Jeremy’s eyebrow went crazy.

Russell stands up in front of thousands of young people who’ve paid a serious dollop of their wages to hear him make them laugh. Though he looks like a survivor from Altamont, his audience does not. They are young, professional people: nurses, bank clerks, call-centre operatives. And what Russell has picked up is that they hate, if not the concept of capitalism, then what it’s doing to them. They hate the corruption manifest in politics and the media; the rampant criminality of a global elite whose wealth nestles beyond taxation and accountability; the gross and growing inequality; and what it’s doing to their own lives.

Russell’s audience get pay cheques, but their real spending power is falling. They don’t just need help to buy, they need help to pay the mortgage; help to get out of relationships that are collapsing under economic stress; help to pay the legal loan shark and meet the minimum credit-card payment. Above all, they need help to understand what kind of good life capitalism is going to offer their generation. Because since Lehman Brothers that has not been obvious.

Jeremy’s audience consists of their mums and dads. They, too, are worried about the future, but – as a generation – they are financially secure. So when Russell tells Jeremy that profit is evil, that capitalism is destroying the planet, that politics is corrupt, it’s like watching proxies for two completely different worlds collide.

I think, on balance, Russell is right about the prospect of a revolution. It won’t be a socialist revolution, nor even an anti-capitalist one in design. It will be something cultural – like the mass uprising of Turkish youth I saw in Taksim Square this year. A complete rejection of the venal values of those who run society. In fact, as I’ve written before, it’s already going on.

What’s driving it is the failure of the current mode of capitalism to answer some basic questions such as: where will the jobs come from if automation takes over our lives? Where will high wages come from if workers’ bargaining power is repeatedly stamped down by the process of globalisation? How will this generation be secure in old age, if the pension system is shattered and we face half a century of boom-bust?

To people of my generation, the absence of outright anger, rage and aggression sometimes makes it seem as if young people don’t care about any of this. But anger and rage are behaviourally impossible in our society: raise your voice, and the official responses range from “being asked to leave” to tasering. All the repression of the various protests – Sol, Syntagma, Taksim, Occupy – has done is to force the anger and rejection inwards. The revolution that’s under way is more about mental and cultural rejection of the story on offer: to leave college with a heap of debt, to work as a near-slave in your early twenties in the name of a “work placement” or “internship”.

And it is not only Russell who thinks there’s going to be a revolution. Analysts at Gartner, an IT consultancy, recently issued this warning: “A largerscale version of an ‘Occupy Wall Street’-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.”

So Russell versus Jeremy was a big cultural event, akin maybe to one of those David Frost interviews in the Profumo era, only in this case it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer, who speaks for the upcoming generation. Because while everybody over 40 is saying, in effect, “Tee hee, isn’t Brand outrageous?” a lot of people in their twenties are saying simply: Russell is right – bring it on.

“Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere” is out now (Verso, £12.99). A version of this article first appeared at

Russell Brand. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.